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Albert Ayler - The Copenhagen Tapes

Ken Waxman, Jazz Weekly

Almost 33 years after his death in New York's East River, an apparent suicide, the stature of tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler as a major musical force keeps growing. His redefinition of horn playing away from empty technique and towards emotional vulnerability, and his insistence on articulating simple themes that easily became vehicles for improvisation, has been acknowledged by everyone short of the most reactionary jazz neo-con.

Today with indie rock stars looking for street creed and exploratory contemporary classical composers joining jazzers in placing the saxophonist in the pantheon that includes Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, it seems that his influence is everywhere. Some commentators even call this musical time the Post-Ayler epoch.

With a recording career that almost exactly paralleled in brevity that of cornettist Bix Biederbecke, another innovator with a truncated career, most of Ayler's work has been issued and reissued many times. Yet these exceptional 10 tracks are for many new discoveries. Not 1964's justly celebrated studio session issued on various labels, these more than 68 minutes of prime Ayler come from earlier live and studio dates recorded during that same trip to Copenhagen.

Exhibiting the saxophonist's superhighway-wide vibrato and unique sense of timing and intonation, the tunes also feature Ayler's most cohesive rhythm section and an exceptional front line partner. Drummer Sunny Murray, who would go on to play with avant-garde ensembles of varying quality in the following decades, had already codified his unique metric sense here. Sloppy as the sound of trash men tossing garbage can lids -- and a perfect foil for the saxophonist's extended glossolalia -- precise as microsurgery elsewhere, Murray may not emphasize the beat like a bopper, but his rolls and sudden flames definitely keeps the tunes moving. Bassist Gary Peacock's trajectory started with the likes of flutist Bud Shank and pianist Bill Evans before this and appears to have reached its zenith with his present fame as one-third of pianist Keith Jarrett's standards trio. He was actually no more experimental with Ayler than with his other employers. Yet his burnished arco slides and solid pizzicato timekeeping made a perfect foil to Murray's percussion explorations.

Over and above all this is the presence of trumpeter Don Cherry, probably the most cohesive and erudite brass man who ever worked with the saxophonist. Anomalous when compared to the style of the saxophonist's most consistent playing partner, his brother, trumpeter Don Ayler, Cherry's scope is far different. In truth, Don Ayler was for all intents and purposes an apprentice, transferring Albert Ayler concepts to the valve instrument; Cherry was a mature stylist on his own.

He was already an apprentice hard bopper who had converted to the new thing when he met Coleman. From that point on, the trumpeter showed then, and in his later creation of a variant of nascent so-called world music, that he was easily able to mix the brassy showiness and rhythmic intensity of pre-free jazz soloists with a propitious inquisitiveness. By 1964 Cherry had not only played alongside Coleman for years in that saxophonist's most significant combo, but also worked with both Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Thus, throughout the disc, rather than guiding a proselyte, Ayler faces a foil that can match his intensity and emotion every step of the way. Furthermore the trumpeter's capricious sincerity gives these mostly familiar tunes an added fillip and adds an astringent condiment to the saxophonist's sometime mawkish, over-the-top presentation.

Recorded at Copenhagen's Café Montmarte and a Danish radio studio, the CD includes announcements and asides by Ayler, an explanation of and introduction of the music and musicians by a local announcer and a brief, biographical statement by the saxophonist. He says that he had wanted to go to Scandinavia for some time because --"over here I feel quite free." Subsequent performances would suggest that much of his freest playing was indeed done in Europe.

Lax in naming his compositions, this session features versions of tunes like "Saints." "Mothers," "Vibrations" and "Mothers," which may or may not have been record under those names later on. There are multiple versions of some of the titles here as well. Yet Ayler was proof of drummer Shelly Manne's definition of jazz musicians: "we never play anything the same way once."

Ayler fans and anyone interested in a well-recorded document of one of jazz's justified legends would be wise to pick up this disc.